Into the Fukushima Zone of denial, deception and destruction
This journey is an odyssey through strange landscapes into the
operational center of the Fukushima "recovery" campaign. Inside the exclusion zone, an outsider might expect to be an eyewitness to the efficiency and discipline of Japan Inc. in its drive to gain complete control after a dire accident.
Venturing past the 20-kilometer limit, one is instead surprised to discover quite the opposite - an amorphous netherworld without clear rules or boundaries, out of sync with rhythm, rhyme and reason. For here, inside the Zone, lies the numb soul of our machine society, the subconscious of industrial reality, and the chaos that underlies our imagined sense of order. The Zone is a space where dreams rot, half-born and half-buried
Outside, the trains have resumed their clockwork precision, while consumers readjust to the daily routine, but as everyone knows deep down there can be no going back to before 3.11, the day when nothing would ever again make sense. On their mental calendar, it is Year 2 BE, beginning of the end.
Though once-densely inhabited seaside communities were swept into the deep, and the stench of decomposed flesh still arises from the broken sea walls, the Zone is not entirely dead, its space is itching with high energy. It is not a slow-healing wound, as the media would have us believe, but a fast-expanding tumor. Here, the mere drop of a rod or the turn of a gene sequence can put a full stop to human history, and on this soil of mutation, new strains are reorganizing their inner workings to challenge a damaged human gene pool for the top of the heap.
The mindlessly raging Zone is by now in full command of the body politic, tossing around the once dominant social ego called Tokyo like a stuffed doll, while it threatens to eradicate the nation's super-ego, the ancient cultural tradition rooted in Kyoto. A mere 20 kilometer circle inside Fukushima Prefecture determines the fate of this nation and for that matter the rest of the planet.
This odyssey into the exclusion zone runs the gauntlet between sorcerers' incantations and magicians' illusions, just like ordeal for Ulysses on his homeward passage from the ruins of Troy - though for us, home cannot exist anymore, except as a siren song. The only path is forward, cutting through the spells of the demented physicists, prescriptions from murderous physicians and warnings by guardians at the gates. If there's nothing beyond, then at least we know the game's up.
When one reaches the main gate of Fukushima 2, through which dump trucks roar in a cloud of radioactive dust from devastated plant No. 1, one suddenly realizes that there never was a 20-kilometer line, no ribbon of yellow tape, not any indicator of a safe limit, for why tell the foolhardy that they have crossed into the future? The boundary is a fiction for the media, because the Zone is actually borderless, ever since the first nuclear explosion lifted a funnel of isotopes into the jet stream. This is only its nucleus.
For the inmates inside the nonexistent radial line, illusion and reality are one, death and life are the same, both sharply piercing the lungs with every breath. For the young men who've come from the outer island colonies of Okinawa and Hokkaido, the "sensible" alternative of remaining in their recession-mired outland would be to invite starvation upon their families. At least here in the Zone, the price of destruction to their bodies will pay for the next meal and a roof for wife and child
J-Village, located right next to Fukushima No.2 nuclear plant, is itself an ironic ending for these young men who as boys dreamed of advancing into J-League professional soccer. Their prefab trailer houses and outdoor portable toilets are set up inside a huge outdoor sports complex, where now the only form of exercise is climbing ladders to run hoses into damaged reactors.
As off-duty workers scurry toward the showers, they rip off their hepa-masks to suck in air that will kill them in 6 months rather than in 6 hours. A couple of passing workers said that the location is strange to them; all they know of Fukushima is Tepco plants Nos. 1 and 2 along with J-Village. Most have never met a local resident except for an occasional manager or foreman. Otherwise, the pay is low and getting fired easy. Show any sign of illness, and the bosses will put you on an outbound bus with your termination papers in hand and a bad record on file with every corporation in the country. For many a fired worker, who has lost his teeth and hair, despair and debt have led straight to suicide. The only thing worse than being trapped inside the nuclear gulag is get kicked out of it.
Incredibly, about the distance of a home run in Tokyo Dome, there are cabins across the tracks from the nuclear power station. Laundry is flapping in the wind. An adjoining rice paddy registers 1 milliSievert per hour; a calculator shows that the inhabitants will be dead within a span of five months.
Further down the narrow road., I met an old-timer, a resident whose home had been collapsed by the earthquake. As we walked past a crossroad, he said, "This here is known as 48 corner." The crossing sits at the bottom of slope, and despite repeated high-pressure water hosings,. the radioactivity level consistently remains twice as high as the numbers being blared out from the town's PA system. Nobody believes what's being reported over the loudspeakers, probably not even the woman who is doing the announcing. If everyone believes, then it's surreal, but if nobody believes, it's insane.
Sitting on a low wall, the retiree tells me: "Did you see the new school on the way up? The government's planning to force the children to come back, and the parents will have no choice because the city schools are going to end enrollment of outside students." Along the road from the station, I couldn't find a rice ball for breakfast on the empty shelves of the only store left, all the restaurants were shuttered, and entire neighborhoods are deserted - but the company town is going to reopen the school, no doubt so that the parents will have to move back.
Many of the absentee families will return to spanking new homes being erected by contractors. All around, wooden houses barely touched by the quake are being torn down. Some of the beams are stacked in dusty piles, but other rubble is bagged and covered with blue tarps. Touching blue, my dosimeter reads 0.60 mSv. So the government is remodeling in order to remove all evidence of major leaks out of Fukushima No.2.
A front door swings open and a smartly dressed woman emerges from a brand-new duplex home. With the striking looks of a model in a glossy brochure from a real-estate developer, she doesn't fit the profile of a country-bumpkin. Womenfolk here wear bonnets, ride bicycles and have wrinkles. As the lady talks to the construction boss, I notice that she's wearing a business suit and make-up.
The realization hits me like a sledge hammer, or maybe it was just satori - there have never been duplexes in these boondocks.. Land is allocated to extended families. These new quarters are out of a Tokyo architect's catalog, some foreign notion of how the middle class should live in the suburbs. This is a Potemkin village, the facade of a new normality of comfort and neatness inside the evacuation zone for the returnees. Could this housewife be a fake, too? This is the post-disaster future, a recovery with designer death camps and Stepford wives.
Soon security arrives. Out of an unmarked car, an angry man crosses the road, shouting at me. "You here to do interviews?"
Was that a question or an accusation? A veteran journalist, I avoid the mistaken assumption that the law protects everybody except corrupt bureaucrats and corporate criminals. Instead of reacting with a "And you the hell are you to be asking me?", my humble-pie response goes: "Interviews? What interviews?"
"Then what are you doing here at this crossroads?"
"Taking a photo of that roadside Buddha. I came a long way for that shot."
"Roadside Buddha?" The plainclothesman doesn't know whether to laugh or cry. "Listen, if you want to do interviews, get something right from the start: You are to register at the town hall and bring your ID."
"I'll be sure to do it on my next visit, because now that I know how to register, I'm coming back to do interviews."
"You're coming back?" Head shaking, the security man is out of ammo and crawls back to his car.
Experienced journalists are old foxes who know how to lead the hounds into the brambles.
Walking down the road, I enter a tunnel to snap some of the trucks rolling through with cargos of radioactive rubble from Fukushima No.1. Whenever a big Hino or Canter rumbles past, the dosimeter leaps twice as high in only a split-second's passing. According to the government, the meltdown rubble is being stored inside the compounds of the nuclear stations. Through this tunnel, however, hundreds of trucks a day pass by homes and businesses on their way to distant dumpsites in the hilly interior, or sometimes stopping to transfer their lethal loads onto freight trains.
At Koriyama Station, 70 kilometers from the coast, my dosimeter picked up a shockingly high 0.58 reading on one side of a passenger platform. Schoolgirls in short skirts were using the same line and getting off on that platform. Saddam may have tried hard to obtain weapons of mass destruction, but he never came close to matching the devious chicanery from Tepco and the Japanese bureaucracy.
Along a mountain-hugging train line, I stayed at a campground because there are no rooms available in or near the exclusion zone, Tepco and its contractors have booked every hotel to maximum capacity. The camp was outfitted with a government radiation monitoring system. Comparing the air reading with my dosimeter, the device was honest enough - but everything else about the rig was a clever deception. The site, on a bluff over a creek, had been dug out and the soil replaced with new gravel. From its higher position, two meters above the stream, the readings were three to five times lower than at the waterside campground.
As I shivered in my hammock against the nighttime downdraft, the readings shot up to 0.38, a level dangerous enough to set off the geiger alarm, which woke me up. Stumbling in the darkness up to the monitor, I found that the solar power unit was down for lack of sunlight. The nightly shutdown was convenient for Tepco, which does its unpublicized radiation releases around midnight.
At the crack of dawn, I rolled up my camping gear before heading for the coast. I was surprised to find a white Toyota stationwagon parked on the narrow road directly above, its engine idling at 5:30 a.m. Late the previous night, three raucous fellows amused themselves by shooting bottle rockets toward me and were cursing a lot, until I told them to shut up after 10 p.m. After I got a can of coffee from a vending machine and walked up to the empty train station, the Toyota drove off. This wasn't a vacation, and I wasn't a happy camper.
On my return from the coast, some seniors who were cutting grass told me that local people have had "strange experiences" whenever they've strayed into the mountains. "For many decades," an older gentleman explained, "security men who are not with the police or military come out of the woods to accost people and turn them back. There are a lot of hidden sites in the forests, and many of them are outside the 20-kilometer zone. So be careful whenever you're up here."
This wasn't some late-night sci-fi movie, it's Fukushima on the road to recovery. After those words of advice, I recalled the high readings along a brook that fed into the main stream. A footpath to the hydropower dam had been roped off. That wouldn't stop me, but
fallen branches and landslides did not permit any further uphill progress. On a patch of bare ground, I found number of golden scarab beetles in a circle, dead. Taking their readings, I realized they had gathered for mating season, but once they got close enough, their combined body count killed them all. I wondered if the same could happen to a couple of humans snuggled on a sofa.
Nearby, water seeping through a cliffside triggered a high measurement. Why would the water by this tiny brook be so much higher than the campsite by the wide stream? The answer came in a flash of geology trivia: Uranium inside the granite. The mountain region of Fukushima is known to be the only place in Japan with uranium ore. The Imperial Army established its atomic bomb program here in the 1930s.
To build an atom bomb in those days up until nuclear reactors became widespread in the 1970s, engineers had to produce heavy water, or tritium, inside reservoirs. Tritium is used magnify the surge of neutrons that detonated the uranium or plutonium core. The hydropower dam topside must have been put there to produce tritium in the uranium-bombarded reservoir, and an electrolysis system was used to separate out the heavy water, just like the Nazi scientists had done in Norway. Heavy water and tiny bits of uranium are still percolating through these hills, and the old strategic sites remain protected by some untouchable and unmentionable security force that was watching my movements all along.
Tritium in the water, cobalt-60 in soil samples, strontium and cesium everywhere, plutonium particles on the ground, xenon gas in the upper atmosphere that is massively expanding an ozone hole over the Arctic, the weather going haywire across North America, Europe and Australia, and the suffocating blanket of lies worldwide about what is happening here - what does it all add up to?
More than 16 years earlier, two radiation releases occurred at the Tokaimura nuclear station, located between Fukushima and Tokyo. At the time, I was an editor and investigative journalist uncovering a network of nuclear physicists and engineers that supported the Aum Shinrikyo sect, which was involved in the Tokyo subway gassing and before then the smuggling of advanced weapons technologies out of the former Soviet Union.
My reporting team tracked the mystery as far as possible could before we were removed by government order. Threats and the violent death of a senior editor blocked any further search for the secret programs involving nerve gas and warheads. Now, at last, inside the Zone, the circle is closing, and the truth is starting to emerge.
The barely concealed bomb program is supposedly for Japan's future defense against a resurgent China. The Aum investigation informed us otherwise, however, that there are powerful conservative sponsors who seek to avenge the defeat, to even the scales for Hiroshima and Nagasaki. If the 3.11 disaster has stymied the possibility of a Third World War, or Final War, as the Aum cadre used to call it, then there may be a silver lining to this radioactive cloud. On the other hand, maybe the war is already well under way as deadly particles drift across the Pacific and Arctic, reaching every inhabited corner of the world.
The summer odyssey did not end in Fukushima but continued with further journeying up to mountain peaks near Tokyo and on the southernmost tip of Kyushu. Radiation was streaming in from the Japan Trench, driven by a Pacific high pressure front and then a typhoon. The whistling and moaning of the hot winds that drove the strangely self-illumined clouds were a requiem for a dying planet.
On the long hike up that forested volcano, I stumbled upon the one spot, a lava hollow on the leeward side, with a 0.00 reading - the holy grail in a radiation-poisoned world. There, I had just
startled a doe and her fawn. Selflessly, the mother deer jumped across the path to divert my attention from her baby. When our "intelligent" species' brightest minds have wrought global destruction and refuse to accept responsibility for their crime against life on earth, how is it that this wild forest dweller could show the noblest quality of character? And how could a child of nature have known that this mountainside is the only safe place to raise the next generation? It is getting too late for our kind, and so at this darkening hour I could only wish that nature will find a way for her to survive.
As for us, demented brutal beasts who arrogantly consider themselves superior to other creatures, there's no point in wishing for another chance or hoping for anything exalted as redemption, because humankind's odyssey will soon be over. We had our moment to reach for glory, and instead we blew it.
Yoichi Shimatsu , former editor of The Japan Times Weeklly, is an environmental writer and consultant based in Hong Kong and Thailand.